Smoking Tigers (2023) ‘Tribeca’ Movie Review: To be a teenage girl is to constantly exist within a volatile eye of the storm. There is unmitigated angst gripping you at all times, and you’re forced to shoulder the burden of your futures for the very first time, the experience often being overwhelming and alienating. Suppose unstable family dynamics are thrown into the mix. In that case, the path to adulthood is even more winding and unpredictable. There is something inherently traumatic about girlhood that stays with you forever, molding what kind of person you end up becoming in the long run. 

The winner of AT&T Presents: Untold Stories at Tribeca, Smoking Tigers paints a vivid, visceral picture of girlhood, where a first-generation Korean American teen experiences growing pains while navigating a world that is both promising and perilous when it comes to contributing to her sense of identity. Director So Young Shelly Yo approaches this as more than a coming-of-age vignette — we dive headfirst into Hayoung’s (Ji-Young Yoo) world and experience every emotion she contends with, from harboring a complex yearning for a time before her parents split to craving affection in places that seem deceptively safe. 

Hayoung’s mother works especially hard to provide for her and her sister Ara, while her father flits in and out of Hayoung’s life at his convenience. The teenager likes spending more time with her dad, as these moments emerge as more precious since they’re transient. Hayong associates the distinct brand of cigarettes that her father smokes with a sense of home and prefers his erratic presence over the steady, sometimes overbearing presence of her mother. There’s more than meets the eye, of course: although Hayoung’s father is well-intentioned and tries his best, her mother is the one truly pulling all the weight to ensure that her daughters have a comfortable future. 

A still from Smoking Tigers (2023).
A still from Smoking Tigers (2023).

This unsavory realization hits Hayoung a bit too late, and what once felt overbearing now feels endearing as she realizes that her disdain for her mother was thoroughly misplaced. There are complex reasons for this: Hayoung’s friends at her test center all belong to different social strata, as they all live in big, swanky houses and are used to the luxuries of life that she can only dream of. As Hayoung is ashamed of her mother’s rented home, she pretends to hail from affluence, and she is ashamed of her financial circumstances. She shouldn’t be, but that’s a difficult inherent feeling to unlearn when you’re growing up. 

Hayoung’s friends are as shallow as it gets — they use her to boost their marks by asking her to help them cheat. Later, they abandon her when they learn of her true financial standing. Hayoung’s intensity of emotions, however, never spills over and is directed towards these people: again, it should, especially towards a guy who lulls her into a false sense of comfort only to discard her a week later, exposing how often young adults get away with extreme cruelty just because they can. Hayoung realizes that she deserves better and quietly distances herself, her sense of loneliness heightening when her father decides to leave the city for good. 

Shelly Yo uses vivid color palettes to capture the vibrant nature of life and the gifts they have to offer, often dulled after Hayoung’s experiences become innately devastating. She learns that the bonds of family are more important than friends who don’t truly care about you or understand you, and while her path is still lonely, she has people to look after and love. This, in itself, can be immensely freeing, and Hayoung’s acceptance of her father’s absence culminates in the phone call with him towards the end, where there’s a faint promise of reunion and a newfound strength to trudge forward, no matter how difficult things turn out to be.

Smoking Tigers was screened at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival

Smoking Tigers (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Tribeca
Smoking Tigers (2023) Movie Cast: Ji-Young Yoo, Jung Joon Ho, Abin Andrews, Erin Choi, Erin Yoo, Phinehas Yoon
Director/Screenwriter: Shelly Yo
Language: English
Runtime: 85 Minutes
Editor: Mengyao Mia Zhang
Cinematographer: Heyjin Jun

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